Sitting on George Town’s Lebuh Chulia tourist strip, the Hong Kong Bar would look obstinate even if it hadn’t almost burnt to the ground a decade ago. It is beset by two reggae bars on either side and another around the corner, between them hoovering up the dregs of the Banana Pancake Trail before they’ve even wandered by. The Cantonese couple by the till have been running the joint since the mid-1950s and are systematic in their habits, thrusting the latest guestbook under the noses of patrons before they’ve taken their first sips. When we were there last month, the only other drinker was a British expat of 50 years’ standing who looked like he’d been singlehandedly holding up the bar ever since. His unit had been based in Penang during the Konfrantasi; he demobilised, went back to Leeds to pick up his old life, and within a few weeks thought better of it and booked the next ticket back.¹
Beginning its life as a shore leave hangout for the British Merchant Navy, by the 1970s Australian soldiers stationed on the other side of the Selatan Strait at Butterworth had claimed the Hong Kong Bar as their own. The British absconded from their military presence in Asia after they were slapped down to size by America during the Suez Crisis, and in 1957 Australia took over the Butterworth Air Force Base as their own. A defence pact with Malaysia was formalised in 1971, right when the policy of Forward Defence—threats to Australian territory were to be met on the soil of other countries—had reached its apotheosis… and right when arguments in favour of Australia’s force projection into Southeast Asia were being discredited by a certain military quagmire further to the north.
Change is glacial in any military bureaucracy, and Australia has a long tradition of ministers cowed and belled by the Defence Department. The ones that push back, or the ones that aren’t much chop, are never too far away from a few strategic leaks to the press and a trip to the knackery. It took more than a decade after the fall of Saigon for Australia to reconsider its force posture; it fell to Kim Beazley, with his raging boner for military hardware and unabashed Americophilia, to win the trust of the top brass and then whack the department with an external review. Published in 1986, a report authored by ANU academic Paul Dibb recommended disengaging from the Asia-Pacific region and repositioning the country’s combat capabilities towards fighting defensive engagements on Australian soil.
The government stopped short from a full endorsement of the Dibb Report. Australia pulled out its fighter squadron and handed over control of the base to the Royal Malaysian Air Force in 1988, keeping a legacy presence of soldiers to train in jungle warfare for three month stints. The fact that Australia has no jungle is as good an indication as any that the government was keen to have a bet each way,² as is this beer coaster left at the Hong Kong Bar by an Australian soldier in 1994:
The tradition of leaving memorabilia at the Hong Kong Bar goes back to the days of soldiers on R&R from Vietnam. By the time of the September 2004 fire, the bar was so firmly associated with its Rifle Company Butterworth clientele that the New Straits Times covered the event as an Australian tragedy.
Company plaques, visitor books and photo albums were all lost to the blaze and the outpouring of grief was immense. For a while, there was talk that the owners would pack it in, but they persevered. The three month rotations of Australian soldiers into Rifle Company Butterworth continue, and they remain dedicated patrons of the Hong Kong Bar, where the burnt plaques sit on one wall in memoriam, while the post-fire mementos line the other.
A new stack of photo albums sit under the counter; they’re instructive things, stuffed with innumerable polaroids of Sergeant X and Corporal Y with their arms around the thin waists of “German Tourist” and any other number of unnamed, sun-bleached European women. Peering into them is a glimpse into the little traditions that earned the Australian military its reputation for decency and fraternity. There are the pointless wars, the hazings, the ADFA sex scandals, the cheapening of every story of nobility, gallantry and sacrifice in the name of political capital and foundation myths—but in those photos and on those walls, you see the kid who would’ve otherwise spent the rest of his working life doing day labour in a dying country town, becoming the man who realises that everything he’s been told about the outside world is wrong. You see differences set aside and minds opening. You see young men, one arm clutching a beer and the other around the shoulders of their commanding officer, their faces brimming with the knowledge that they are custodians of a history that is bigger than themselves. It was Howard who made the Gallipoli pilgrimage the central plank of the new state religion—if you want to pay your respects without all the bullshit, go to Penang.
1. Having seen the Red Riding trilogy, can’t say I blame the old mate.
2. The Australian military’s half-measures disengagement from Asia came to an end when Suharto was forced out of office in Indonesia and the machetes came out in East Timor. A few years later, George Bush II decided to have a crack at his dad’s unfinished business. Australia is back in hock to US military contractors, and Forward Defence is enjoying a renaissance, even if the foreign policy establishment considers the term to be frightfully passé these days.